The first step toward protecting your home from break-ins is to conduct a home security check that will show where your property is most vulnerable.
A professionally installed and monitored home security system is a nice addition to your home's defenses, but it shouldn't be your first step toward protecting your property from intruders. Before you invest in an alarm system, conduct your own home security check. Walk around your house, inside and out, and assess what needs to be done to reduce the risk of a break-in and lessen the degree of loss if an intruder does manage to get in. Depending on what you find, you can install needed hardware upgrades yourself or hire a pro.
This step-by-step list, arranged according to the hierarchy of risk, is a good place to start.
Your home's appearance
Burglars want an easy target. Stand on the street outside your house and ask yourself: Does my property look neglected, hidden, or uninhabited? A front door or walkway that's obscured by shrubbery offers crooks the perfect cover they need while they break a door or window.
Consider trimming shrubs away from windows, widening front walks, and installing outdoor lighting with motion detectors. Simple motion-activated floodlights cost less than $50, and installing them is an easy DIY job if the wiring is already in place. All sides of your house should be well-lit, not just the front.
Doors: The first line of defense
Are your front and back doors vulnerable? Steel, solid wood, and impact-resistant fiberglass are all good choices for security. If you must have glass, make sure it is tempered or reinforced for added strength, and that sidelights are positioned where somebody can't easily reach in and turn the lock.
Open all doors and check the strike plates, the metal fittings that catch bolts and latches. Chances are, the strike plates are fastened to the soft wood of the door jamb with two screws only. Not good. Best are four-screw strike plates with 3-inch screws that penetrate the jamb and bite into the hard wood of the stud behind the jamb. All exterior doors should have deadbolts that throw at least a 1-inch bolt. Ask your locksmith to upgrade to Grade 1 or Grade 2 locksets and deadbolts, the most secure options.
Back doors and garage doors are more likely to be attacked before the front door, according to Chris McGoey, a Los Angeles-based home security consultant. If you have an attached garage, secure the door by disabling the automatic opener and locking the door before you go away on a long trip. The door leading from the garage into the house should be outfitted with the same hardware as all other exterior doors and be kept locked at all times.
In order of risk, ground-floor and basement windows are more likely to be attacked than second-floor windows. The exception is second-floor windows that can be easily accessed by a deck or other elevated structure outside the home. Make sure all windows can be opened, closed, and locked with relative ease--and then remember to lock them. The biggest problem with windows is that homeowners leave the house and leave them wide open.
For added security, consider installing blocking devices on the most easily accessed windows so they can't be opened from outside, says McGoey. Wooden dowels laid in the track block windows that slide horizontally, and steel locking pins (about $7 each) inserted in small holes drilled through the frames prevent windows from sliding vertically. If you install a home security system later, the pros will install glass-break sensors on your most vulnerable windows.
Don't ignore the doors and windows on your outdoor storage shed, especially if you store tools such as ladders, saws, screwdrivers, and hammers, any of which would be handy to a burglar. As with house doors, the best option is a secure deadbolt. Hasp closures are easily defeated because someone can insert a crowbar behind the hasp and snap it.
Not all storage shed doors are able to accommodate a deadbolt. In that case, opt for a heavy-duty slide bolt ($15-$25) instead of a hasp closure. With one of these, a tough steel bolt slides into a fitting attached to the shed door frame or a second shed door. The bolt is then rotated down and locked in place with a padlock. When attaching a slide bolt, avoid screws, which can be easily undone. You're better off using nuts and bolts because they're stronger, and because the nut does its job from the interior of the shed.
It's relatively easy to lift a set of older patio doors off the track, even when they are locked. Don't attempt to do this on your audit, but take time to inspect the doors and hardware. Replace any missing or broken locks, and consider installing and using locking pins to prevent them from sliding.
Consider your family's habits: Do you leave the patio doors open all summer? Locking the screen door isn't good enough; it keeps out bugs, not thieves. Get in the habit of closing and locking patio doors when they're unattended or you're not home.
Safeguarding household valuables
Thieves want easy-to-grab electronics, cash, jewelry, and other valuables, though some are not above running down the street with your flat-screen TV. Most make a beeline for the master bedroom, because that's where we're likely to hide spare cash, jewelry, even guns.
Tour each room and ask yourself: Is there anything here that I can move to my safe deposit box? Consider getting rid of old jewelry you never wear. A home safe, bolted to your basement slab, is a good spot for everything else. Have you made a video inventoryof other items of value in your home? Are you properly insured for theft? Understand that high-ticket items in your home office, such as computers, professional camera equipment, or other business essentials, may require an additional rider or a separate policy. And take steps to back up the personal information stored on your home computer.
Joseph D'agnese is a journalist and book author who has written numerous articles on home improvement. He lives in North Carolina.
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